Tag: melodic death metal

Children of Bodom – Hexed – music review

Children of Bodom – Hexed – music review

Children of Bodom played one of the most insane shows I’ve seen yet at Summit Music Hall on March 22 in Denver. Alexi Laiho came out seeming relaxed and positive as he took the stage and quickly ripped into his set. The good opening bands of Wolfheart and Swallow the Sun were both very accomplished esoteric metal from Finland who offered a great chance to see talented bands that are obscure in America but very musically accomplished. The audience was appreciative, but it was hard to anticipate what would come next as the headliners took the stage. From virtually the first note, the room went insane with energy and the entire crowd was one pushing mass. The show had the most beautiful and kinetic energy I’ve seen at a metal show yet. The whole audience was shoved around from all directions due to the circulating mosh pit behind me, but everyone was totally friendly. The audience just loved the band, but no one was safe. People looked out for each other pretty well, and the love for the band was overwhelming. 

Hanging on at the front, the only way anyone in the first two rows could stay up there was by holding onto the railing as people slammed in from behind all night. Crowd surfers were flying overhead in short order, and the continual dance of metal horns in the air was unrelenting. Alexi seemed genuinely appreciative, and it was a happy but intense pure metal show from Children of Bodom. Everyone was nice and was letting other people know they weren’t trying to push but that the whole crowd was moving. The people who went into the pit at the middle said it was friendly but incredibly busy, and the band responded with surprise and delight as they played even more intensely and paused frequently between songs to thank people for being so serious about the show. Then they would erupt into still more thunder. Music has a beautiful ability to create its own world and to leave normal perception behind, and for a band that writes occult themed songs with some regularity, the sheer energy and odd movement of the audience was as close to supernatural as it can get. I got insane looks and compliments when I took out my camera for a couple of brief minute long gaps when no crowd surfers were on my head and when the continual chaos seemed stable enough with who was leveraged around me to actually be able to hold my camera and grab a few shots of Alexi.

Children of Bodom

It was definitely a night for pure metal appreciation, and a lot of people who like obscure extreme metal showed up, especially fans of metal from the Nordic countries. Children of Bodom are supporting their new album Hexed, and it is a more complex and layered album than the last. Where I Worship Chaos was a successful and fast death metal album, Hexed has brought out the melody Alexi is capable of on his guitar much more, with whirling and twisting sounds capturing a vision of chaos that seems true and beautiful. Some of the spinning and whirling sounds with intense rhythm are hard to achieve and offer a strong songwriting showcase to go along with the great technical playing the band is known for. Both are very good albums, but the previous one seemed a little more in the direction of accessibility, as though the band summed up it’s long history with somewhat direct songs, while Hexed is esoteric to its core and should appeal to hardcore fans of the band. It is likely closer to capturing Alexi’s vision as it takes the twisted sound that has been around in Children of Bodom albums for some time and amplifies that to beautiful and strange sonic contortions. The addition of a new second guitarist helps to create this as the two instruments play next to each other in beautiful twisting sets of melodies, with of course Alexi’s melodic sweeping attacks holding the lead.

The set was filled with a few of the new songs and several classics, including songs from Alexi’s favorite Hate Crew Deathroll, a nice way to tie their past to the band’s present after a little more than 20 years. Much of the beauty of the performance though was the way the choice of classic COB songs amplified the lovely twisted sounds of Hexed. It is clearly using motifs that have always been part of the band’s repertoire, but it places heavy emphasis on those musical passages of odd contorting instruments that become something like a chaotic surface from which Alexi’s guitar is able to soar, rising above with melody alongside the keyboard and then crashing back down into the pit of chaos the rhythm section is driving for him.  Much of the attraction to Children of Bodom is in the way that they are able to balance aggression with extravagant beauty. Alexi is one of the world’s best guitarists, and he conjures sounds from his instrument with beautiful melody and sometimes classical sensibility while his tempo can reach insane speeds that push metal hard but don’t lose the amazing variation in his sounds. It is hard to find a guitarist who grinds out such a fierce attack with beautiful melody and artful tonal variations in the instrument. The result is a powerful dance of beauty and chaos, something that seems to capture the heart of what heavy metal is capable of.

Children of Bodom

The keyboard is inspiring and worthy of the prominence symphonic metal bands give to the instrument in contrast to the rarity of seeing it in a melodic death metal band like this, but it especially serves as a backdrop to Alexi’s guitar, like glimmers of light happening as the venue erupts. So the result is a very balanced and aggressive sound that is kinetic the way only death metal can be. The Hexed album is a worthy successor to the intense I Worship Chaos. Both albums are pure melodic death metal, but like many great bands, this is really just a slight adjustment of emphasis out of the palette of sounds and styles they’ve always used. The whole album is strong and has the bizarre twisted sound throughout as the two guitars play against each other, and circular beats pour out of the drums, but Under Grass and Clover and Hecate’s Nightmare are personal favorites. The former got played at the Summit, and the audience went insane, but there was also great love shown for the band’s earlier songs that were in the setlist. The new album opens with another very good song that has been a single and was also played that night, This Road. Compared with earlier albums, the lyrics are a bit clearer in intent, and Alexi has a lot to say besides yelling alongside his guitar. He captures a very confused world of angst and struggle that is in discord with seeking out harmony in one’s life. He sings, “Faceless, dreary soul, like a bottomless black hole. Your future is bleak. My past is unknown. Don’t leave me behind. Just leave me alone.” It is a somewhat remarkable portrayal of a fractured and twisted world that fits the guitar chaos with its search for beauty in melody very well. The prominent twisting sound is also found on earlier albums, but it’s clarified here and seems to have a real trajectory.

Alexi is one of the best guitarists in the world. This comes through impressively enough on every Children of Bodom album, but in person and live the experience is far more powerful and ecstatic, and this show was even better than the one they played at the same venue two years before. His solos demonstrate beauty even while the audience is insanely being shoved all over the venue. The second guitarist gives consistency to the songs while Alexi can fly off in wild directions and truly capture chaos in sound. Heavy metal is a powerful and broad genre with seemingly endless sub-types, but Children of Bodom is among the most artistic and the best of that. They unify the insane aggression of death metal with beautiful melodies, and while melodic death metal has many great purveyors, this is as excellent as it gets. The lyrics are very focused on an ecstatic release of burdens that matches Alexi’s guitar compositions, as though we should take from death metal the need to love every second of life by breaking all convention given the short time we are here, a true insight to be taken from death metal. The album’s title track of Hexed is a song of wonder about bad circumstances. Alexi tells us, “If spirits could be visible, not just a fallacy, your hex would be tangible, but in reality, they haunt me, taunt me.” It shows someone looking for a glimpse beyond the veil of bad fortune in search for explanation. What we can’t explain though is certainly filled in beautifully by Alexi’s guitar.

Children of Bodom

Occultism is a clear touching point for the band as songs like Hecate’s Nightmare also demonstrate, but it mostly stays at the level of music being a medium to break normal perception. Sound does have its own energy and spirit, and this becomes a mechanism for occult interests in a lot of musical works. With Children of Bodom, the power of using this as a reference comes from being able to successfully create bizarre chaotic sounds that break normal experience while at the same time showing beauty to what the music offers as an alternative to normality. By focusing on internal awareness also, the question of who we are and what we live for, the band is able to show different inner dimensions of ourselves than most people are aware of, and that is one of the better and more legitimate occult ideas, odd perceptions making sense when given the right context. What Children of Bodom seem to like about those themes is the rupture from normality, darkness, and sense of mystery. They favor eerie sounds, and haunted things capture that well as an image. It’s worth noting here that horror movies figure prominently as influences for a number of dark bands, but while there are great films among those works from the likes of George Romero, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento, most horror movies are typically not great works of art. Children of Bodom though manage to capture the best parts of that spirit, the sense of the forbidden, the disturbing, and the weird that a genius like Franz Kafka would enjoy in horror. So we are fortunate to get only the best of those ideas throughout their albums, but even more so on their best albums, and Hexed is definitely one of them.

This band is about dark creation and overcoming barriers through music and art. Their work is meant to challenge our awareness and use chaos to break free of standard things we take for granted, holding some similarity to the great industrial band Psyclon Nine with that. When Alexi’s guitar grinds out one of those strange soaring melodies, it’s an assault on the listener’s normal way of thinking. It’s meant to get inside and make us someone else, to capture the fire that comes with creative inspiration. They were named after the lake they live by, which was the site of infamous murders. Before people take that the wrong way though, the band is not advocating violence at all. The lake figures into their music more as a place that is haunted by its past. That could mean occult haunting in a literal sense, or it could mean a past that is broken and needs some recognition and adjustments like so much of what we continually live around. The songs often show complaints about life being broken, and Lake Bodom is a fitting image for the tragic frustration of that. In any case, the band is chaotic but is searching for love and connection as the beautiful melodies show. Lake Bodom with its tragic past is basically a weird place that challenges a person to make sense of it, and that is in tune with Alexi’s vision of all of us dancing over hell but looking for something much better. 

Children of Bodom
Arch Enemy – Will to Power – music review

Arch Enemy – Will to Power – music review

Arch Enemy has been around for more than 20 years and has been taken seriously as an important band for a lot of that time. They still show growth and are one of the most influential bands working today. Their new album, Will to Power, is their best work to date, and the supporting tour is selling out around the world. Alissa White-Gluz replaced longtime, though actually second, singer Angela Gossow on the previous album and has instilled new life in the band. She has a remarkable energy and delivery with more frequent breaks and stylistic shifts than the grinding growling hissing pace of the previous singer, who continues to manage the band.

Angela took over as their singer well more than a decade ago and delivered five important albums with them. Over that time, the band developed and layered increasingly intricate sounds. It gave a lot of background for Alissa to work from with a previous singer who has some stylistic similarities and a band with a large repertoire and clear vision. Placing Alissa into this mix was a brilliant move, because the band’s continual development left them working very well with a new singer but gaining an additional perspective that gave them a new spark.

War Eternal was an impressive debut for Alissa with the band and gave songs with a clear message. Will to Power refines that into a consistently bold testimonial with deep layers of complex shifts in melody and tempo. Death metal fuses with melody and new age ideas for the band as they critique personal and humanistic evolution impeded by oppression. Rather than just being dark, death metal becomes a war cry against oppression for them and allows the band to offer a universal message of freedom and overcoming negative forces.

with Arch Enemy
with Arch Enemy

Having a singer who sounds so much like she means it sharpens the band’s ideas and instrumental excellence even further. When she cries, “This is fucking war,” it sounds real, and both the studio recordings and live presentations amplify this. Seeing her yell that while 1300 people jumped into the air with her at a sold out show at Summit Music Hall in Denver really does make her look serious, and the band’s ideas are in the right places enough that they are worth getting behind. At one point in the show, Alissa waved a black flag with the band’s logo, and it looked legitimate when any other band would have been hard to take seriously. People around the world in supposed democracies are oppressed, and death metal’s long tradition of feisty boldness with esotericism is a beautiful thing to put into that complaint about injustice. It becomes truly epic when added to the melodies the band builds. 

Visionary

Michael Amott is one of the best guitarists in the world, and he moves from shredding death metal aggression to melodic harmonies happening at a fast but fluid pace. It allows for emotion to become present in the songs without being superficial, because his melodies stay complex and move fluidly into the next passage too fast to seem like he is merely trying to emote with the audience. It provokes a very powerful and overwhelming experience of sound as a much larger and sweeping aura. Where the Angela albums had a more grinding pace, the Alissa albums have more breaks. This fits the styles of the two singers. Alissa is proving an inspired lyricist with very poetic lines to work with, though Michael has a hand in the lyrics, and this style gives his guitar a chance to move aggressively and fluidly between very different passages.

The whole band has unusual and inspired personalities with a strong camaraderie between all members of Arch Enemy playing off of one another exceptionally well and writing the music together, though with Michael Amott standing out as the main songwriter and visionary of the band. Alissa seems apart from this familiar mixture yet very much crucial to the mix in just the right way. She has come in late in the band’s existence, but she reflects their ideas and inspires them in a profound way. Changing singers suddenly in a 20 year old band leaves a lot that is hard to predict, and having this turn out so well is an amazing story.

Michael Amott with Arch Enemy
Michael Amott with Arch Enemy

Dark music is in a very strong time of its own right now. The 21st century is clearly filled with problems and negativity, spread across environmental disaster, animal abuses, civil rights oppression, serious failures of liberal politics, lower wages, lack of jobs, technological oppression, and possible world war. Collectively gothic, industrial, dark metal (such as doom, black, and death), and some styles of punk have responded strongly to this with bold statements and great depths of inspiration. It is an artistic renaissance happening in subgenere rock. Arch Enemy capture many of these ideas and are one of the brightest spots within a larger trend.

Some trends of anthemic metal are preserved within them but with dense complexity and none of the superficiality inherent in some of those bands. Choruses are fun to sing but tend to grind and happen alongside breaks in Amott’s guitar and stylistic flourishes from Alissa. Usually the choruses are well thought out and have metaphorical value that make them much more interesting to sing along with than a lot of metal can offer.

Songs

The songs on Will to Power are a complex and bold testimony to the band’s key themes and ideas. It plays as a fully mature work that distills their major themes with bold harmonics that are far less obvious than their average (still very good) works. War Eternal is a good album, but it sounds transitional. Some songs are gems and some seem a bit simple in structure. This makes sense to me as the band was rapidly changing to a new singer. New ideas are present on that album but are not quite complete.

As the Pages Burn and War Eternal are very important songs about material surroundings oppressing who we really are. Certainly society’s record keeping ties people down to superficial things that may not be good descriptions of their best capacities and natures, and As the Pages Burn gives lyrical expression to a release of selfhood with the collapse of that social burden. It is similar to a description of karma, as an inner release tied to the overcoming of superficiality allows for one to evolve under that view.

War Eternal tells a similar story of a long term war which is the struggle for humanity to evolve spiritually or personally while social forces work to oppress people. Fascism, slavery, low wage labor, propaganda, etc. all mislead people into superficial understandings of who they are based on surrounding things. To free people from this is a struggle for liberation, and it is one that does not go away. The idea is actually ecstatic in the Greek sense of a release from one’s surroundings, because it advocates for the freeing of humanity as a whole without tying it to any specific political event. It is a deeper message and an ongoing struggle that would likely go better if we could figure out what the real obstacles are, and it is quite valuable to have a band smart enough to have this message. Arch Enemy is a fun band and often gets described as merely rebellious due to this, but as the band matures, the clearer the message becomes, and the more intricate and profound it is.

Alissa White-Gluz with Arch Enemy
Alissa White-Gluz with Arch Enemy in Denver at Summit Music Hall, 11/17/17

My favorite song on Will to Power is Eagle Flies Alone. This track describes solitude as a soaring above averageness and uses the metaphor of the eagle. In keeping with the name of the album, this idea does indeed exist in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. His favorite animals are birds and snakes, and he likes the eagle for being a predator while also solitary. It refuses to be conquered but is by no means vicious. Metaphorically, it rises and soars above what others fall in line with, and Nietzsche associates this with overcoming traditional morals and social negativity into a higher existence. The lyrics for the song focus on deception and corruption in the world and suggest that an honest person could not be average at all. This is a metal subculture view at the same time as something that can be developed out of Nietzsche, and it is wonderful to see a counterculture idea being so intelligent and thoughtful. 

Blood in the Water speaks about a closing down of options with lines like, “Yesterday’s ideas are just a dream,” and impending danger of oppression, “as the blind lead the blind.” It fits the world climate well, and Arch Enemy correctly points out that the further the oppression goes the more people will fight until the global order may find it hard to exist. While the 21st century has generally been filled with negativity and a widening gap around the world between the super rich and everyone else, this sort of absurdity breeds opposition.

States that care more about military attacks than about peace and justice may find it hard to get along with their populations. As wages dwindle and much of the world does not treat healthcare as a human right, people are apt to complain about the problem much more, and as technology offers new ways to track and oppress people, there is less reason to trust the powerful. In such a context, dark artistic expression has become very important and relevant, and this band is one of the most powerful and prescient examples of that.

On the stage, Alissa is impossible to describe. She’s a friendly person off stage, and that is preserved when she takes her place in front of the audience with her normal smiling personality, but when she gets into a lyric she completely shapes herself and the entire scene to the meaning of the song as though she is channeling the larger message of Arch Enemy. It makes her one of the most perfect performers I have ever seen. Truly a fiery personality, emotions erupt from her with perfect timing and poise that no one else has.

There are singers I like as much, but I have never seen a person front a band better. I would imagine that Freddie Mercury may have been like this for people who got to see him perform, but she is so natural at what she does that it makes rock seem like it is only at the beginning while a lot of people have just been grinding out the obvious instead of exploring what can be done artistically in new and bolder ways. Much of what Alissa does can only be seen in person, and no one else can do it. This is a perfect band, album, and tour and one of the best things happening in music.